Ronnie L. White's Death and the Cloud Over the Prince George's Jail.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

ON JUNE 29, 2008, Prince George's County inmate Ronnie L. White, accused of killing a county police officer shortly before, was found dead in his jail cell. Nearly a year later, after a swirl of theories and allegations that read like plotlines out of "CSI," it's still uncertain how Mr. White died. The county's top prosecutor, Glenn F. Ivey, told The Post's Ruben Castaneda and Ovetta Wiggins yesterday that he is not planning to press murder charges, although his office emphasized that Mr. Ivey will pursue an indictment if new evidence emerges. That news isn't a surprise, but it had to disappoint Mr. White's family, along with community members who are fed up with the scandals that have plagued the county's correctional center. But it appears Mr. Ivey investigated as thoroughly as possible, and a grand jury didn't find enough evidence to indict. Mr. Ivey's office said the Justice Department is examining the case, which is appropriate.

Mr. White, a 19-year-old with a criminal background, was accused of killing Cpl. Richard S. Findley. Less than 48 hours after he was arrested, Mr. White was found unresponsive and without a pulse in his maximum-security cell.

That's where things get murky. Jail officials first said that Mr. White was slumped on the floor of his cell; an attorney for the Correctional Officers Association later said that guards found Mr. White hanging in an apparent suicide. Corrections officers were supposed to enter Mr. White's cell with a hand-held camera to record their actions; only after Mr. White was removed on a stretcher did the camera start recording. Guards blamed a camera malfunction. There was also confusion about whether a bedsheet was found in or near Mr. White's cell. An autopsy report found that Mr. White was assaulted and strangled; the guards' union insisted it was a suicide.

There isn't enough evidence at this point to convict any of the guards, but their behavior has done little to support their claims of innocence. Some guards, with the support of their union, initially refused to cooperate with investigators. When they did cooperate, they offered confusing accounts of how they found Mr. White. Mr. Ivey left open yesterday the possibility of pursuing lesser charges such as obstruction of justice.

As we've written before, the mysterious death of Mr. White is symptomatic of larger problems at the county jail. In recent years, inmates have died at too-frequent rates and under questionable circumstances. There have been disturbing outbreaks of violence, such as earlier this year when inmates disabled the locks on their cell doors and assaulted guards. There have also been apparent lapses by jail officials. The director of the jail was fired last year after four handguns were found to be missing from the armory; some guards were suspended last year for allegedly smuggling cellphones to inmates.

Federal investigators should take a close look at both the case and the need for broader reforms or more oversight of the beleaguered jail.

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